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Cereal Killer: Wheat Blast Haunts the Global Dinner Table

20:00 EDT 1 Aug 2017 | Meridian Institute

In 2016, wheat blast, a disease caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae, was found across widely scattered wheat fields in Bangladesh. Wheat blast on such a scale had never been found outside of South America; now it had managed to jump two oceans. Somehow, the fungus had managed to get a foothold on the Asian continent. As wheat is the most widely grown crop on the planet, scientists found this outbreak to be very troubling. “One of the scary qualities of this disease is that it’s seed-borne,” said Barbara Valent, a professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University and a leader of a team of researchers from the United States, Bangladesh, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, who has studied Magnaporthe extensively. “You can have fungus in a healthy-looking seed, and [if you] move that somewhere else, [then] you’ve moved the fungus and you’ve moved the disease.” A plant’s best defense against the disease, she adds, is in its genome. There are, however, very few major resistance genes to the fungus that have been found in wheat. The Blast Integrated Project, which is led by Valent and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is working to find such genes, as well as keep wheat blast out of other wheat-producing regions. While researchers have identified a segment of chromosome, 2NS translocation, that is present in all resistant varieties, they are also looking to other species for help. Still, researchers have been reluctant to use transgenic technology given the public concern about genetically modified organisms. The new gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 holds promise, the researchers say, as it is not regulated in the U.S. Valent says she envisions an integrated approach to controlling wheat blast that includes changing agricultural practices. For example, she says, planting alternative crops for a time could help, as could planting a little earlier or later in the season to avoid the combinations of heat and moisture that favor blast development. Adds Naresh Chandra Deb Barma, the director of the Wheat Research Center in Bangladesh, “This new disease is very damaging and poses a great threat to the wheat industry in South Asia. Multiple interventions are needed to mitigate wheat blast. …We need to bring all resources to increase awareness about this disease.”

Original Article: Cereal Killer: Wheat Blast Haunts the Global Dinner Table

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